Finally, a relatively quiet month. I did not conduct one note, write a piece of music or play anything on the piano. Okay, there was some studying, as a few new works are on the horizon, but a real vacation was in order, and I took advantage of this rare occurrence.
After the success of the DSO’s Asia Tour, Cindy and I headed out to California. My wife was one of the featured composers at this year’s adventurous Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music. Their new music director, Cristian Măcelaru, scheduled one of her works in each of the festival’s two weeks. It was strange being in the audience, as I had never before heard any of her music conducted by anyone other than myself.
Happily, there was no feeling of jealousy, and it was instructive to hear some different ideas coming from another conductor. The orchestra was excellent during the festival, with a lot of work given over to the percussion. Santa Cruz is a nice place to spend some time, and we even got in a whale-watching cruise. Our host, Sandy, provided us with a lovely, secluded place to stay.
At the end of the first week, we headed down to Los Angeles to attend the engagement party of my son and his fiancée, Bridget. Daniel continues to grow as a musician and person, and his intended is a very positive force for him. We also got to spend some time with their pug, Winston, a scrappy and personable dog who seems to garner affection no matter where he goes.
Cindy went back north, and I, along with my brother, Daniel and Bridget, went to Las Vegas for a couple days. I was not able to win enough to erase any budget shortfalls in Detroit, but the tables were kind, and I left with a couple hundred bucks in my pocket. The most important part of this trip was putting together what will become my extended family. Looks like we will all be close, and that is something for which I am very grateful.
We came back to Detroit where I underwent a medical procedure that was long overdue, but this did put me at home, out of harm’s way for a while. Catching up on movies, TV, some correspondence and just resting was the order of the rest of the month. So instead of my usual diary-style writing, here are two things that might be of interest.
With my new book scheduled for publication on September 12 and available for pre-order here, the publisher, Amadeus Press, has graciously allowed me to include one chapter for you to read in advance. I chose the piece about Nathan Milstein. Although most of the book is devoted to looking at elements of my own career as well as examining aspects of today’s musical culture, there is a section in which I single out six individuals. Here is one such portrait:
Growing up in a household filled with Russian émigrés, my brother and I were constantly reminded of the glories that were the motherland’s distinguished school of music teaching. It seemed as if the Germans and French, not to mention the Americans, did not exist. But if my parents spoke of one artist with special reverence, it was the violinist Nathan Milstein. Not even Horowitz or Heifetz was held in such high esteem.
When I found out that Milstein was available to be the soloist on one of my programs with the St. Louis Symphony, I was overjoyed but filled with anxiety. Like so many musicians from Russia, he had a reputation for an explosive temperament and a downright mean spirit. I don’t think there is anyone who encountered Milstein who does not have at least one great anecdote about his personality.
Here is mine.
It was December of 1974, and Milstein was seventy years old. During this birthday season, he was making the rounds to various orchestras, playing one of his signature pieces, the Brahms Violin Concerto.
The week before he was to appear with us, Milstein was in Los Angeles with Zubin Mehta. Usually, with a piece like this, only one rehearsal with the soloist is needed. A fine orchestra knows the work inside out and can quickly detect any nuance the soloist brings to the piece. Zubin felt that meeting with Nathan before the orchestra rehearsal was not necessary, and so when Milstein came to the stage—having requested and having been denied a one-on-one with the conductor—he started right in.
The concerto opens with an orchestral tutti of about three minutes before the violin plays a single note. One bar after Milstein’s entrance, he turned to the orchestra and said something like, “You know, in the sixth bar, the note is not being held long enough.” Now Mehta had to go all the way back to the beginning of the piece and play through that section, with Milstein stopping him throughout to correct what he thought were inaccuracies. It was all baiting, just to get back at Zubin for not agreeing to a meeting. Nathan managed to eat up almost the whole rehearsal, leaving very little time for the orchestra to play the other works on the program.
I was determined not to let that happen, and upon Milstein’s arrival in St. Louis I left messages for him with the driver, symphony staff, and hotel saying that I would like to discuss the Brahms that night before the orchestra session the next morning.
At 7:00 I showed up at the Chase Park Plaza, the grand hotel in St. Louis. I went up to Milstein’s floor and from the hallway could hear him practicing. But something was amiss. The pieces he was playing were all a half tone lower than usual. I knocked and he opened the door, violin in hand. I could not help but notice that he had a practice mute on the instrument, one that barely allows the musician to be heard. After exchanging greetings—we had never met—I asked him why he practiced with the strings tuned down. He said that it was better for the violin, as there was less pressure on the bridge of the instrument.
For about an hour he talked, without playing a note. And what he wanted to tell me was how horrible all conductors were. Toscanini, Walter, Stokowski, Fritz Reiner—all of them. Stories of their incompetence rolled out of his mouth as if on a conveyor belt. This did not instill a lot of confidence in me.
Finally I asked if we could go over some places in the concerto. He said, “Why? I know it, you know it, and the orchestra knows it. Let’s just do it tomorrow when we are all together.”
I was having none of that, knowing what had happened in Los Angeles the week before.
He eventually played a few passages, but I was on to him. Growing up in an extremely flexible musical environment, I knew that virtually nothing of what he was demonstrating would occur the same way at rehearsal or during the concert.
At the rehearsal, things seemed to be going well. He did not stop me after the first tutti, and we played most of the first movement without pause. Except for the one time I did what he hated most: I turned away and looked at the cello section instead of the soloist. At that moment Milstein started bending the phrase in a direction I was not expecting, and for an instant the ensemble was not together. He stopped us, and the tension set in. From that point, I do not think I ever looked at the orchestra again.
He would say one thing and do another. “No ritard in the last two bars,” he warned, and then he added one, yelling at us to watch him. He would purposely rush a passage just to see if I could keep up. But whatever he did, it was never unmusical.
At the first performance, things were going along smoothly, and then, in the last movement, he had a brief memory lapse. The mistake didn’t disrupt the concert and we just kept going, but it was clear that he was upset. As we left the stage, he said, loud enough for some of the musicians to hear, “Orchestra play like pigs.”
I was devastated.
The audience was rapturous in its ovation. However, I did not want to go back onstage and share a bow with him. Milstein said, “You must behave like professional,” and out we went together. Inside, I was a wreck.
John Edwards, the executive director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and my mother had flown in from Chicago to hear this concert. With Milstein, the four of us headed to Tony’s, the great St. Louis restaurant. During the ten-minute drive my mother, who had known Nathan through her Russian musical connections, mentioned that she had been doing some television work. Milstein wanted to know which shows she did.
All of a sudden he lit up and started recapping every episode he could think of. It was his favorite, and now my mother was his idol. The rest of the evening, while I was hoping to be regaled with tales of musical life in Moscow, Vienna, and Paris, the conversation was reduced to a discussion of Southfork.
The second performance was the next evening. Waiting backstage for the concert to begin, and still distraught over Milstein’s reaction the night before, I did not say a word to him.
He came up to me, put his arm on my shoulder and said, “You must forgive a foolish old man. It was my fault, not yours. Let’s make music.”
After that, we performed together several times over the years, always the Brahms. And he simply could not stop his childlike musical pranks. But I loved him and cherished those times dearly.
Part of the television binge watch was to see what all the fuss was over Game of Thrones. After Season Four, I decided that there should be an even more cultured version, incorporating fantasy, opera and jazz. It is purposely eclectic, so all the references may not be clear, but I had fun writing it.
Game of Podiums
Season 11 Episode 9, LS Recap
A Hero Emerges, a Drumbeat Is Heard and a Reed Is Lost
It really happened! After weeks of speculation, the King of Musicalis was given his well-deserved exit—maybe. As if that weren’t enough, we got a lot of information that had never been revealed until now. It all picked up where the previous episode left off.
Amfortas Bay: After a brutal battle, the shattered remains of the rival Caelmund Camarata and the Elfreda Ensemble lay strewn across the floor of the Three-Legged Pub. Only Hippo the Knight and his ward, Prunella the Weak, were showing any signs of life. Rising slowly, they walked amongst the bows, drums and cornets, leaving the ale house and mounting their steeds, Fafner and Fasolt. We saw them riding into what appeared to be a forested area, possibly to the south.
Swing: Prince Germont is pacing in the throne room, waiting for the appearance of the King of Swing. After a minute, he glances at a scroll laying on a table. Curiosity gets the better of him, and just as he is about to open the missive, he hears rumblings in the hallway. The prince picks up the scroll and puts it in his tunic. Benny enters along with his two eunuchs, Neuritis and Neuralgia.
“My Lord,” exclaims the prince, “it seems like ages since we last met.” The king replies, “You seem to have put on a bit of weight, or are you just happy to see me?”
The eunuchs have a giggle over this, and the prince wants to know who they are.
“We are the keepers of secrets greater than any before and greater than any to come,” they say in unison.
“I too have secrets,” says Germont.
The king is furious and demands to be told what the prince knows. Not giving up very much, Germont tells him that his long-lost sister Aretha might be found on the Isle of Langerhans. The king announces that he will send one hundred ships to attack the island and rescue her.
The two royals leave, but Neuritis and Neuralgia realize that something is amiss from the table.
The Great Wall: The army of Aikenhead is confronted with a giant sheath of ice, making it seemingly impossible to surmount. The bastard Tamino, leader by default because all the previous leaders have been killed off, says that they must scale the heights by nightfall lest they be frozen on the embankment. His wife/sister/second cousin/aunt by a previous marriage says that there may be a better way. Taking a small wooden flute from her mantle, she summons Hansel and Gretel, the two dragons she raised from birth. They proceed to use their fire-breathing skills to melt the ice, thereby drowning the remaining troops. The human mates are picked up by the dragons and taken to safety.
Cockburn: Randy, the keeper of the brothel, is busy entertaining recent visitors by showing off some of his latest acquisitions. Lumpy the Oaf interrupts, telling his master that two guests have arrived unexpectedly. But these are not the ones from the former wall. Instead, two maidens have come to ask for sanctuary from the evil Maestro Ladro. It seems that they had been performing in the Bailwans Sinfonietta when the music master made improper gestures at them during rehearsal. They quickly packed up their lutes and headed to the castle.
Randy, sensing opportunity, offers them mead, ale and a steak made from some clarinetists’ innards. They modestly decline, only wishing refuge and sleep. Bella and Donna are taken to an opulent chamber and sigh contentedly at their newfound comforts.
Langerhans: Princess Aretha has received word of her possible departure. Several big birds told her this. But she realizes that she cannot tell anyone, especially her trusted fiancée, Lulu, who made a brief but significant appearance in the first season’s third episode. Unbeknownst to the princess, Lulu is in love with a slave, Samson. But today an event known as Feast Day for the Lions will take place in the arena. The main course is filet of Samson.
Hansel and Gretel come dashing into the chamber. After explaining why they have arrived, Lulu sets a plot in motion, hoping to achieve several goals.
Swing: Finally alone again, Prince Germont goes to his room and opens the scroll. It is a manuscript of an ancient song, “A House Is Not a Home without a Boar’s Head over the Mantle.” It becomes clear to him that the king is planning to give the premiere of this piece, most likely featuring his favorite concubine, the soprano Salome. With the largest orchestra in the realm available, the concert would most likely be the ideal opportunity to massacre the opposition and take control of the entire known world, as they would not be able to resist the invitation to attend.
Germont goes outside, but waiting for him are the two eunuchs.
“We told you we know the secrets,” they intone. At the same time, they draw their swords, the very ones used to mutilate them when they were children. But Germont is ready, as the scroll also contained a highly toxic gas, made by Maester Bartolo. This renders Neuritis and Neuralgia even more impotent than they already were, and the prince heads to the harbor.
Birdland: Some of the realm’s most notables have gathered for a Festival of Oldies and even older Oldies. Among the titled guests are Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Thelonius Monk, Pops Armstrong, Lady Day, Sir Roland and Big Mama Thornton. They are really into a groove with an improv on “L’homme armé.” Suddenly the big doors to the Hung, Drawn and Quartered Pub are thrown open, and an exhausted Lulu asks for some grog, frog spleen and beak of duck. She explains to the entertainers that she needs their assistance in rescuing the love of her life.
After finishing up the third set of the evening, they all set sail.
Langerhans: The king is eagerly awaiting the main event in the arena. So far, the lions are six out of six in victories. This was all made much easier due to the slaves not being given any armor or swords to defend themselves. Benny does not like his entertainments to progress slowly.
Now comes the time for the main event. Samson is accorded a choice between a sword or a shield. He wisely chooses the former, as it is really difficult to kill a lion with a piece of wood. Just as the beast is about to be unleashed, the sound of drums is heard outside the gates. Using their sackbuts as ramrods, the stars of early jazz break down the barrier and join Samson in the ring.
They unwrap their instruments and gently begin playing “Le lion dort ce soir,” to which the manely creature curls up and takes a cat nap. Benny the King is furious and orders his troops to get into the fray and kill Samson and the band, now renamed Renaissance and the Gnarlys. Amidst the havoc, with several bagpipes, tambourines and viols scattered throughout the battlefield, Lulu manages to grab the one remaining shawm. Racing to the king, she screams, raises up the king’s tunic and shoves the instrument into the place where the sun never shines and never will.
A long crane shot pulls back, surveying the carnage, and the scene fades to black. This leaves us with a lot of questions about next week’s season finale. So many strands to unravel.
What happened to Hippo the Knight and Prunella? Does Benny Live? Which lover will Aretha end up with? Will Maestro Ladro make an appearance? Where is the band’s next gig?
Follow along with me as we wrap up this endlessly entertaining season. Please address all commentary to Entertainment Weekly.
Now it is time to get ready for a return to France, where I will head the jury for the conducting competition at Besançon. Like the Cliburn, this is something I have never done before and most likely will not do again. But there are still experiences that remain curiosities for me, and I am very interested to see how this process works.
I hope all of you have had a great summer, despite the horrors emanating from DC and Texas, and other disasters, both natural and man-made. Stay safe.
See you next month,